There are still rumblings of thwarted frustration emanating from the lair of the Football League’s assorted mandarins, buffoons and early-onset Alzheimer’s cases. The discontent surrounding this misbegotten cabal of power-mad crumblies dates from their humiliating reverse at the hands of Massimo Cellino’s legal team, as he successfully fought their original decision to bar him from owning Leeds United. The League, represented by ex-Leeds CEO and serial football disaster Shaun Harvey, as well as the son of convicted rapist Owen Oyston among other unsavoury characters, was forced to back down and rubber-stamp Cellino’s acquisition of Leeds, amid much grumbling and ill grace. It was always likely that, given the opportunity, they would return to stalk their quarry once again.
The persistent niggle which may yet afford that opportunity is the mention by the appeal judge of a possible imputation of dishonesty against Cellino when the full decision of the Italian court became available. This, he remarked, could once again leave Cellino open to disqualification under what is loosely known as the “Fit and Proper Test”. Rumours now abound that Sandra Lepore, the Italian judge in the Nélie tax avoidance case, has indeed found that our Massimo was more than merely naughty and misguided in his import duty dealings. Massimo’s legal men have been mobilised once more, declaring that the judgement is full of holes and that an appeal is inevitable. Meanwhile, the hapless oafs at the League have been unable to get a look at the alleged full judgement and have even had to resort to asking Cellino’s own lawyer for a copy. As if this mess were not messy enough, another court case is pending against Big Mass, so a further sullying of his reputation is not impossible – probably not even unlikely.
So, where does all this leave Massimo Cellino and his future as absolute ruler at Elland Road? Bang to rights, some would say. He’s been called dishonest, and the fit and proper test exists to exclude dishonest types (though not, apparently, convicted rapists). So, technically at least, Cellino could be held to account once again and ultimately forced to sell Leeds United, with all the enormously toxic fallout that situation would carry along with it. In reality, of course, things are unlikely to be so straightforward.
The most important consideration here and now is that Cellino is installed in LS11, that he is making all the decisions, for good or ill – and that he has already wrought enormous changes at Yorkshire’s premier club, with much, much more change in the pipeline. That much is indisputable fact. The ongoing revolution promises, but is not limited to, the repurchase of the Elland Road stadium, and its subsequent redevelopment, the building of a new training complex much closer to the club, the continuing reorganisation of the football side of things including transfer policy and, for all we know, the ongoing hiring and firing of several more coaches before Christmas (although plainly we’re not one of those awful Watford-type clubs that have already had half-a-dozen managers since August…)
It is the undeniable fact of Massimo being the man in possession that is crucial here. The “Fit and Proper Test”, by its own exacting conditions, is clearly intended to be a fail-safe tool whereby prospective owners and directors may be assessed ahead of assuming control, in the absence of any opportunity to see how they shape up in action. By that reckoning, Cellino should already be beyond the scope of such a precautionary measure. He has been in situ and extremely active – with a high degree of success, it must be said – for a good few months now. The financial state of the Football League’s most illustrious member club has been improved beyond all recognition; the squad has been revamped courtesy of some rather effective recruitment and at least one thieves’ bargain of a sale. In short, Cellino has dispensed with the need for any pre-emptive, anticipatory “Fit and Proper Test”, by the simple expedient of getting in and doing a fantastic job; he has shown that he is a fit and proper owner of Leeds United by dragging the club up by its bootstraps and improving things enormously, in a relatively short space of time. The future now looks bright for the Whites.
Whatever the technical ins and outs of the law, and of the poorly-drafted and incompetently-applied Football League test, it is this reality of the situation that is surely important now. Cellino has moved well beyond any need for “vetting”, an assessment before the fact of his suitability to own and run a Football League club. He has shown his competence and his enthusiasm – his passion for the job in hand. Leeds United today is a very different entity to the moribund hulk Cellino first walked into just a few months back, a club left half-dead by the year on year depredations of unscrupulous and self-serving men – not excluding the current League CEO. Cellino has almost single-handedly brought about that difference, by the force of his personality as much as by the not inconsiderable investment he has made in the club. There can be no more relevant and accurate assessment of fitness and propriety than this; the League’s pettifogging regulations have been transcended by fact and reality.
Should there now be a further attempt to oust Cellino, simply because a collection of prosaic paragraphs and sub-clauses says that there should be, then the interests of Leeds United and football in general would be extremely ill-served. The consequences would be as undesirable as they would be immense; a club of history and distinction could swiftly be reduced from its current state of rapidly recovering health, back onto the critical list, haemorrhaging money left, right and centre, tumbling down the league, with the Official Receiver once again licking his lips with relish. Is this what the Football League, with its implied duty of care, would wish for one of its member clubs? I ask you.
The answer to that last question could well be yes, as many a Leeds fan, pointing to the lessons of history and the various injustices heaped upon their beloved Whites, might gloomily agree. We will have to wait and see what the League, in their extremely finite wisdom, decide to do. But they need to tread carefully, lest they be open to charges of malice, bringing down disaster upon a national institution – just because they technically, possibly, can.
The situation at Leeds today is crystal clear. Massimo Cellino is in charge and he’s doing a good job. Massimo Cellino is proven to be a fit and proper Football League club owner, not least in the context of certain gentlemen who quite clearly aren’t, but who – bizarrely – are not being held to account.
Look at the real-life situation, Harvey & Co, and have a care. You can’t afford to look any more ridiculous than you already do, in the light of recent rather unwise public statements. Exercise a little discretion and leave well alone. Leave United alone. Cellino and Leeds are on the up. Let them get on with it.